Confession: I borrowed this idea from Technical.ly, a really great tech media organization covering a whole host of cities in the Northeast. 2015 was the year Philly’s tech hub came together around things like diversity, healthcare, local politics and civic hacking.
I’ve not been here long enough to make a sweeping statement about the Triangle, but I’m about to argue that 2016 was a big year of community-wide impact for our region’s collective startup ecosystem.
As we take a step back from chronicling the day-to-day goings-on in the startup community, some seemingly inconsequential happenings—like a bunch of startups voting early together or a happy hour of 100+ social entrepreneurs—are a lot more significant in the broader picture.
So here are the big moves our community made. Tweet, email or comment with any thoughts or additions.
Influencing local, national politics
In many ways, the startup community was forced into politics in 2016.
According to an ExitEvent survey, a StartupsAgainstHB2 website and startup community petition, the controversial “bathroom bill” threatened their ability to recruit and retain workers or to raise needed venture capital. Some customer relationships were impacted. Many just found the bill to be wrong, and as business leaders, wanted to take a stand against the bold move by the North Carolina legislature.
Startup leaders across the state signed a petition to repeal the bill and the website offered a collection of personal stories from startup founders about the potential impact of HB2. When those efforts weren’t successful in repealing the bill, members of the community rallied around early voting, hosting group voting outings.
ExitEvent also hosted a series of conversations and meet and greets with candidates, in hopes of better connecting our state’s leaders with the next generation of business leaders. American Underground held a panel discussion about North Carolina politics, offering ways for its members to get involved and make a difference. HQ Raleigh planned candidate meet and greets and even got involved in the national election. Co-founders Brooks Bell and Jess Lipson gave speeches at the Democratic National Convention, hosted a pretty major local Hillary Clinton fundraiser, and the space held an event with Chelsea Clinton spotlighting local female entrepreneurs (pictured top).
Will future years spark as much political conversation among local startups? With a new governor and president taking over in January, and HB2 still in effect, it’s hard to make any predictions. But this past year, many felt compelled to have their voices heard.
Diversity and inclusion front and center
A couple years since American Underground made its pledge to be the most diverse tech hub in the world, 2016 felt like the year others started to recognize it. The startup campus won rights to the annual Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange Program in October, a weeklong boot camp for a dozen black founded companies, which conveniently coincided with the second annual Black Wall Street Homecoming in Durham. Hundreds of entrepreneurs participated in a week of programming by Google, American Underground and other speakers, many attending the Google Exchange demo day at the end of the week.
American Underground noted continued diversity in the community at its annual report celebration in December, with almost half the companies in its membership now led by women or minorities (and that is starting to be reflected in VC raises by those groups).
In Raleigh, a partnership with Shaw University led to the first InnovateEDU, a summit meant to inspire female and minority students to pursue STEM careers. Oh, and Black Wall Street Homecoming is expanding beyond Durham. See video below.
Connecting healthcare and tech communities
It might seem obvious that the Triangle’s strong technology and healthcare communities should work synergistically, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Plenty of innovation comes out of UNC and Duke’s healthcare systems each year, and NC State is known for its biomedical engineering expertise and talent. Tech transfer within each university is constantly forging licensing relationships or attempting to spin off new companies. But it wasn’t until the last quarter of 2016 that some collaborative efforts began taking place between researchers and the startup community.
An RTP-affiliated foundation provided funding to a new sort of incubator at The Frontier called MEDIC, which pairs students and researchers from NC State and UNC with local healthcare innovators and surgeons to help bring more new technology and devices to market.
UNC also hosted the first Digital Health Innovation Sprint focused on deploying local coders, engineers and startup folks to solve common problems within its health system. A new firm called Blue Door will host future innovation sprints focused on improving healthcare and health systems.
ExitEvent chronicled the ways in which our region could lead in mobile and telehealth innovation, and in many ways, is already doing so.
The NC Open Pass
Organizers of civic hacking and open source groups across the Triangle put their heads together in 2016 to create the NC Open Pass, a sort of all-access pass to four civic hacking events in the Triangle. It all started with the National Day of Civic Hacking and included the annual CityCamp NC conference and NC DataPalooza hackathon, the DataPalooza competition, and discounted rates to the All Things Open conference in October.
CityCamp co-founder Jason Hibbets was so pleased by the response that he’s promised another Open Pass in 2017, starting with Triangle Open Data Day, a new two-day event that features workshops and talks about this growing movement in the region. The Triangle has been known for embracing the civic hacking movement, with active Code for America brigades in Raleigh, Durham and Cary and some cool projects that have impacted the city. Now, those groups are working together like never before.
Promoting social impact/B Corp
Social entrepreneurship has been a big focus at all three major universities in the area—each has special initiatives to both teach students and support entrepreneurs working on social or environmentally minded ventures. But a pair of efforts in Raleigh and Durham are leading to a broader effort.
HQ Raleigh and Loading Dock Raleigh have embraced the B Corp movement, helping their members achieve certification and working with the national organization in hopes of holding its national B Corp Champions event here in the future. (It was originally planned for October 2016, until HB2 prompted the organization to withdraw). A new Social Entrepreneurship group founded at American Underground has grown out of the space to include more than 100 members for regular happy hours.
Making Moogfest happen
It took a village to make Moogfest happen in downtown Durham with just a year of planning. Besides a huge fundraising effort by local organizers, a committee of startup community members put their touch on the festival by creating signage and promo materials about Durham’s innovation economy, staffing the global press room, hosting speakers, workshops and events at American Underground as well as free parties for those in the community without tickets. The combined effort led the Asheville-based organization to re-up for a round two in 2017.
Improving urban environments
A recent successful Kickstarter campaign by a bunch of Durham citizens hoping to eliminate the waste from to-go containers is a great example of the impact our startup ecosystem can have on the broader community. Working with more than two dozen local restaurants, GreenToGo will encourage the use of reusable, returnable containers in downtown Durham. The effort was led by some members of the startup community—Clinton Dreisbach, a former Iron Yard instructor and now Python developer at RTI International, and his wife Crystal, a home organizing entrepreneur and chair of Don’t Waste Durham.
American Underground has hosted several conversations over the last year about issues facing Durham—from K-12 education to community college education to efforts to add open space and trails along the Durham Beltline. American Underground also has partnerships with GoTriangle and Audi to provide alternative transportation options to members and eventually the broader community, and with 21c to provide towel service to members who ride their bikes to work.
For its part, HQ Raleigh is renovating two existing structures in downtown Raleigh, one of which is the notable Art Deco home to the Capital Club. Considering its continued parking woes, it will be interesting to see how the startup campus takes advantage of the new Union Station, the multi modal transit station opening late next year.
RTP continues to consider alternative transportation options as it dreams about its new Park Center project. The foundation provided funding to EcoPRT, a transit research group at NC State with a creative pod system for transporting workers. It also provided a landing pad for The Farmery, a shipping container turned urban farm that caters throughout the park and serves breakfast and lunch daily. Check out the various initiatives underway its experimental innovation campus, The Frontier.
Yes to crowdfunding
A years long rallying cry to bring intrastate crowdfunding to North Carolina was successful this year, and a lot of the credit went to a group of investors, lawyers and entrepreneurs who held informational events, wrote thought leadership pieces and educated local legislators on this new funding opportunity for small and startup businesses. When rules go into effect next year, entrepreneurs will have another tool for raising capital to grow their businesses. Watch Governor Pat McCrory’s bill signing event here.
A regionwide university angel network
Also on the funding front, a new network of university-affiliated angel groups called the Triangle Venture Alliance was created with help from federal and local grant funding. Patterned off of the Duke Angel Network, which launched in 2015, UNC, NCCU and NC State are in the process of forming their own groups to fund startups led by students, alumni, staff or others affiliated with the universities. The coolest part is that the networks will also share deal flow, helping to triple the impact.
Statewide startup camaraderie
A new leader at the helm of NC IDEA combined with efforts by the Institute of Emerging Issues at NC State and a growing HQ Raleigh network of startup hubs led to more support and connections for entrepreneurs around the state in 2016.
While efforts to bridge the highways between our major metro areas aren’t new—NC IDEA’s grant program has always been statewide, Jim Roberts has long invited Triangle entrepreneurs and investors to Wilmington and The Startup Factory’s boot camps in other parts of the state began in 2015—2016 was the year things started to gel. NC IDEA noted record numbers of companies outside of the Triangle applying for its legacy grant program this year, with three of recent grantees hailing from Greensboro, Morehead City and Winston-Salem.
And the winners of its new Partnership Ecosystem Grant are located around the state—specifically grant dollars will help formalize and spur on existing efforts in Greensboro, now called Launch Greensboro, and start incubation programs like Groundwork Labs in other parts of the state through an HQ Raleigh program.
ExitEvent also hosted its first Startup Socials outside of the Triangle—partnering with TekMountain for a summer event in Wilmington, with Next Glass/Untappd in timing with the Wilmington Cucalorus Festival, and with the Greensboro Chamber for an inaugural Triad event. Expect more fun in other NC cities next year.
National leadership in IoT
A hunch that the Triangle area could become a leader in the emerging Internet of Things industry globally is turning out to be right. The less than three-year-old NC RIoT group has become known nationally for convening various players building Internet of Things devices or companies or supporting that industry’s growth. Hundreds of people regularly attend its education, training and pitch events, and nearly 3,500 people have attended a RIoT since June 2014.
The most prominent local IoT startups are involved in the group, as well as major corporations like Samsung, Arrow and IBM. RIoT hired its first executive director this year, and won a grant from NC IDEA to help open a space for IoT companies in Raleigh. Its efforts are increasingly regional in scope, with RIoTs and speaking engagements lined up in new cities next year. Lots more to come from this group in 2017.